The Fever, by Megan Abbott, explores of the intensity of female adolescence and the often-unsettling dynamics of life in suburban America. The novel follows Deenie, a high school sophomore; her older brother, Eli; and her father, who teaches at her school. When Deenie’s best friend suffers a mysterious seizure, rumors and speculation spread as to the cause. Photographs proliferate instantly by text message, amplifying anxieties, and soon, when other teenage girls experience the same symptoms, the high school is beset by what seems to be a full-blown epidemic. The community begins to uncouple as paranoid, desperate parents demand answers.
Abbott threads The Fever with fear: that first loves are ephemeral, that friendships are frail, that the integrity of family and community are questionable at best. She is perhaps best known for her early period noir fiction, and here draws upon the hardboiled tradition in style and pacing, starting multiple fires throughout the novel—a mysterious ritual, sexual awakenings, parental strife, internecine high school social quarrels—each to be dealt with in turn. Meanwhile, Abbott strategically deploys such lush, almost operatic lines as, “He felt a stirring in his chest, and looking at Deenie, her slight neck arched up, he wanted to put his hands on her shoulders and promise her something.” The result is a compelling, suspenseful, and unnerving novel by an author who is redefining the literary thriller.
Megan and I spoke by telephone about The Fever and her writing career. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Fever is loosely based on the 2012 mass hysteria outbreak in Le Roy, New York. What is it about that story that inspired you to write this novel?
It kind of came out of nowhere. I had always wanted to do a novel that addressed some of the same issues connected to the Salem Witch trials, but set in the modern day. So that was in the back of my head. When the [outbreak] story first broke in downstate New York in January 2012, I turned on the Today Show and saw two of the girls on camera. They had developed these tics—motor and vocal tics—and they were completely mystified by what was happening, and they looked so frightened and upset, as did their parents who were with them. It was really unsettling. And then I immediately started writing. The case was in the background as I started.
This is not the first time you’ve drawn from true events to craft a novel. An earlier novel of yours, The Song Is You was inspired by a true crime, as was Bury Me Deep. What sorts of stories tend to catch your attention and stick with you?
In some ways I guess they all are based on real life events; it is only the degree to which they change when I start writing. Sometimes they diverge wildly. For some reason I seem to need the real-life hook. I grew up reading true crime and that is probably the biggest reason, but there are lots of stories that I know won’t be a book. They might be too upsetting or dark to spend a whole year or two working on, and I don’t want to be there for that long. So those end up talking to me but don’t catch fire. Usually the ones that do, there’s a corner of the story that’s still behind a veil—there’s a part that hasn’t been explored. There is some psychological nuance or something that I’m trying to figure out, and that’s usually when the novel starts to catch fire.
In 2011, your novel The End of Everything marked a big shift in the stories you were telling. The narrator is a young teenager; the story is set in modern times—well, the ‘80s. Modern for us. How did it come about?
It was the first novel that I started writing in my early 20s, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I didn’t know how to plot. So it has always been in the background. After doing four period noir stories in a row, I was looking for something fresh to sort of challenge me. So I returned to this book that I had put down, I think at that point, 10 years before. And it just kind of caught fire. I thought that I could deal with a lot of the same themes that I’d dealt with in the first four books, but with a different setting and time period and point of view. That it would make me try to do new stuff, figure something else out. I felt like it was going to be a challenge. And it was, especially trying to nail the voice and trying to write about the time.
Was there resistance from your editors to move from your established place in period crime fiction?
No. It coincided with a change in publisher and a lot of people assumed there was a strategy behind it. Well, not a lot of people—people in publishing! [laughter] I made the move as I switched from one publisher to the other, so it was seamless and it seemed to work out. You always wonder what kind of big turns you can do when you’re writing, but I think the fact that all of the books deal with a crime and they tend to deal with—this shouldn’t be a feature; it should be common—but deal with women and girls. They had that common bond, and I hoped that I could carry any readers that I had gained, that they would maybe follow me to this new place.